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Issue 7 - On the trail of Robbie Burns

Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003


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On the trail of Robbie Burns


If ever someone was suited to the task of championing Robert Burns, it’s Braveheart and Trainspotting actor James Cosmo. Indeed, you could say Burns has been in his life from the day he was born.

“I was born in a little cottage hospital on the site where the Cutty Sark was built,” he says. “The name Cutty Sark comes from Tam O’Shanter, so the link has always been there. And my father, who was also an actor, used to do fantastic recitals of Burns. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around.”

Cosmo, who has a string of television and film credits to his name, is the presenter on a new DVD called In Search of Burns, and it is not the first time he has turned his attentions to the Scottish poet. He was the mastermind behind Clarinda, a film set in Edinburgh and based on one of the poet’s many love affairs.

So the opportunity to travel to all the places where Burns lived and wrote was a labour of love for Cosmo, and an ideal opportunity to learn more about the great man. “I learnt a great deal making it,” he says. “But it was a very emotional experience, too. To go to the places where he lived and to sit in the places where he sat and thought was really incredible.

“He was such a remarkable character. He was a modern thinker with strong social ideals. Much is made of his drinking and his womanising, but if you look closely at him he wasn’t a drunkard and a womaniser. He loved women and wrote about women’s rights. When he fathered a child outside of his marriage, the child was brought up by his family.

“There was real love there, he didn’t abuse women. He had many relationships, but compare his life with the sordid, disease-ridden world of London at the time and there is something altogether more healthy about his life.

“I visited the places he used to walk. On one occasion he was seen talking to himself and laughing and then he ran into the house and started writing. He wrote Tam O’ Shanter, which I consider his best work, and he did so very quickly. But all the work had been done in his head while walking. You get a frisson of excitement when you visit such places.”

If Cosmo speaks with a passion for his subject then that’s quite deliberate; it is something that has characterised his Scottish work over the years. And it was seen most nakedly in Braveheart, an experience which he says changed his life.

“They decided to hold the premiere at Stirling Castle, but I was filming Emma in the south of England at the time and the director said that I couldn’t go because I had to film an important scene the next morning,” he recalls.

“I was obviously very disappointed, but my wife was very upset. So I decided that as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I would hire a plane to get there and back.

“We flew up and we arrived at the castle in a limo. We arrived just after Mel Gibson, and it was only as we opened the car door that we realised how noisy the crowd was. It was incredible.

“As soon as the lights went down and the film started I knew it was something special. By the end there were tears streaming down my face, and when the lights went up I realised everyone else was crying too. There was silence and then someone clapped and it built up to a crescendo. It was an incredible, stunning moment – one of the highlights of my life.”

And the memorable evening was to turn surreal. After the premiere party, the Cosmos flew south again – accompanied by a human heart.

“There were no scheduled flights, so we were asked if we minded taking a heart down with us for an urgent transplant. So after the Braveheart premiere we travelled with a heart.

“The next day the director of Emma said he was sorry we missed the evening. And I told him we hadn’t – we were there.”

If the film inspired Scots on a global level, it inspired Cosmo on a more personal one. Much of the filming for it had to be done in Ireland, and it made the actor think about film-making in his native country. It is his belief that Scotland should be getting the sort of benefits from its natural resources that Lord Of The Rings is giving to New Zealand.

“We spent five weeks in Scotland and five months in Ireland,” he says. “That’s because of the tax break that they have over there. We have the most stunning backdrop scenery, mountains and rivers and sea. We should take advantage of that.”

He accepts the restrictions placed on the Scottish parliament concerning tax concessions, but argues that everyone should be doing more to help out.

And he’s putting his money where his mouth is by investing in a new film studio near Inverness. A group of people, including musician Dave Stewart, are involved in setting up a complex, the first part of which will open this year.

“We need to be proactive in helping the film industry here,” he says. “There is a wealth of talent, we have all the natural ingredients, and there are thousands of stories to tell to the world through film.

“We are planning one 15,000-square-foot indoor studio, and two 10,000 square foot ones. They will be available to Scottish film projects at a special rate. And because there is the possibility they will not be in use a lot of the time, we are building a hotel and an interactive tourist centre so that people come even when there aren’t films being made.

“There is a William Wallace theme park nearby re-enacting battles and the like, so the area will benefit from an influx of visitors.”

It all makes for a busy year, and Cosmo himself has three film projects set to see the light of day over the course of 2003, as well as the possibility of more In search of DVDs.

Increasingly, his work is bringing him home to Scotland at a time when he believes the film industry and the country is growing stronger. He is obviously very proud to be part of it.

“There are so many stories to be told, so many great Scots that many people don’t know about,” he says. “Braveheart was clearly a career highlight for me. But being involved in the development of Scottish film would be a real achievement.”

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